Part One: What Is Gratitude?
Welcome Letter from Karla:
Welcome to this space of learning, light and embracing your own power!
When I conceived of the Circle of Strength Women’s Event, the goal was to bring together women from around the world who had inspired and influenced my own life, say thank you, and pass on some of the knowledge I had gained through my own journey and the first year of living with stage 4 breast cancer.
One of the first things that helped me during this time and got me to a place where I could still live a fulfilling and hopeful life when so much changed was in practicing gratitude. As I sat in the hospital, where I spent nearly two months when I was first diagnosed, I would take a few minutes each day just to reflect on things, people and moments that I was grateful for. While this was not able to take away the pain, nor did it change everything in terms of the loss I was feeling, it did give me a positive focus and some humility on the good fortunes I did still possess. It allowed me to focus my energy and fight back when I needed to. It allowed me to find some peace.
At the Circle of Strength Event, I asked my friend and teacher Maristela Beckman to facilitate the I Am Grateful presentation. I wanted this to be an experience that would not only help attendees to create their own gratitude practice, but would also teach them more about Reiki and the power of finding your own positive energy source that you can draw on whenever you are in need of it.
This workshop is a continuation of that presentation and I hope that it will inspire you to start thinking about your life, circumstances and experiences in a new way. We all have space in our hearts and heads that we can fill with gratitude and use it to fuel our kindness, growth and wellbeing.
What Is Gratitude?
The concept of gratitude and gratefulness seems simple enough and is something we have all felt in our lifetimes. But, it can be surprisingly difficult to add a definition to it or break down exactly how it is achieved.
Robert Emmons, a scientist who has spent his career studying gratitude, said in his essay Why Gratitude Is Good:
- First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.
- The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.
Practicing gratitude is different than simply acknowledging all of the good things you have in your life. Sometimes, it is as simple as looking around and seeing what is there in your life without you even thinking about it. Nature and the inventions and structures that allow us to live our daily lives are full of chances to show gratitude.
This video by nature and time-lapse filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg encourages all of us to look outside our own windows to see what is already there:
What Is A Gratitude Practice?
A gratitude practice is taking the time to bring thoughts and reflections of gratitude into your consciousness. It means recognizing your own sources of gratitude and acknowledging how those came to be. A gratitude practice can humble us, increase our appreciation for our lives, circumstances and the people we surround ourselves with, and can boost our own optimism and general contentment with our lives.
Part Two: How Is Your Gratitude Practice Quiz
The first step to creating a gratitude practice is in learning to practice mindfulness and take the time to acknowledge the pieces in your life that are owed gratitude. As we begin, these questions should help to get you into this mindset.
Part Three: The Benefits of Gratitude
As society has embraced things like capitalism, an achievement culture and “The American Dream”, we have subconsciously learned that we are never meant to be completely satisfied with our lives. We are told instead to always want more and seek to improve and advance. And while there is merit in self-improvement and discovery, it can also lead to feelings of emptiness, unrest and frustration.
There have been several studies that have looked at the impact of practicing gratitude. Here is one example, as explained by WellCast:
There are many benefits to just taking a moment each day to reflect on the things that you already have that you can be grateful for and where you can find a sense of contentment:
It Improves Your Quality of Life
It is likely not surprising that there is a direct link between feeling gratitude and having an overall sense of contentment with your life as a whole. If we are able to appreciate what we already have, we will have less of a need to achieve more to strive to obtain an illusive state of fulfillment and happiness.
One thing that practicing gratitude does is it helps us shift our concept of success and achievement in our minds. While the secret of success might seem like it is in tangible goals, like a certain amount of money in your bank account, a size or location of your house or a title at work, the truth is that there are millions of different things that “success” does not lead any two people to the same destination. You need to decide what that looks like to you. And that definitely doesn’t have to include material items, titles, or circumstances.
Shifting your focus to gratitude can show you that success can come in the intangibles in your life as well as the goals you have reached. Taking the time to appreciate what you already have will also open your mind to finding more things to appreciate. You will start to see that you can even redefine your measure of success, contentment and happiness as your life changes and evolves.
It Improves Your Mood, Reducing Feelings of Stress and Dissatisfaction
Even before the world took on the weight and toil of a global pandemic, we were seeing increasing numbers in people of all ages dealing with anxiety, depression and loneliness. For example, according to the Child Mind Institute, nearly one in three adolescents today experience some form of anxiety and up to 15% experience depression or bipolar disorder.
It has been proven that practicing mindfulness and focusing thoughts towards the present and the positive can help to reduce the negative internal back talk and feelings of hopelessness that can come from anxiety and depression.
This video by registered therapist Emma McAdam explains a little about how a gratitude practice can help strengthen our abilities to see the good and can combat anxiety:
It Gives Peace of Mind and Strengthens Faith
If you are a spiritual person, then you know that connecting to the spiritual world or a maker or religious figure greatly involves the practice of gratitude. There are many religions that practice giving thanks before a meal or with their daily prayers, for example.
Also, within this, there is an acknowledgement that we receive things in our lives that come from a force or place outside of ourselves. In its most basic form, we are all given our bodies, air to breathe and a planet to live on. Acknowledging the gifts that come to us from outside of our own sphere can help to bring us closer to others and connected to the world and our existence within it as a whole.
It Gives Renewed Focus and Drive
There is a shift that can happen in your brain when you concentrate thoughts towards gratitude on a consistent basis. We know that it can improve mental, physical and spiritual health but a study done by Jane Taylor Wilson in 2016 looked at how it contributed to students’ focus levels and their ability to show resilience when their learning became challenging throughout the school year.
Within this study, she found that those students who were reminded to practice gratitude at least three times a week experienced significant increases in their ability to focus and deal with the stress of school. This was hypothesized to be because these students not only had calmer demeanors and got more sleep, but they also saw more or the opportunities that were being presented to them, rather than the obstacles that might be in their way.
An article on Berkeley’s Greater Good site also points to how adopting a culture of gratitude in a corporate or workplace setting can help foster productivity. This is because people who feel appreciated are willing to do more and are prone to being more generous to others, meaning they are more open to collaboration and helping when one person or team’s workload becomes too much.
Within our own lives, acknowledging our own accomplishments and opportunities can give us the energy and drive to strive for new things and take on new challenges. This can help us think bigger and even go after goals we might otherwise think impossible.
Gratitude is something that can certainly fill us with more joy and understanding of the life we live, but it is not a cure all. This short segment from NPR highlights some additional benefits of showing gratitude but also reminds us that it has its limits.
Mini Quiz: Test What You have Learned So Far
Part Four: Potential Pitfalls
While there are so many potential benefits to showing gratitude on a regular basis, there are some pitfalls to be aware of while you are creating your own practice. Some might find their mind resists focusing on the positive or that concentrating on gratitude leads to thoughts of feeling unworthy, inadequate or without purpose. Before we discuss how to add practicing gratitude into your routine, we want to touch on some areas of caution.
When you start to think of being grateful, it can be easy to concentrate on the privileges and things that you have that others do not. When we are a child, for example, many of us are told to finish our dinners because “there are children in the world who are going hungry”. While it is very important to leave places in your thoughts for acknowledging your privileges and showing empathy to others (and hopefully inspiring you to act when possible to help) this is not what a gratitude practice is all about.
When we look at the “worst case scenario” or try to talk ourselves out of negative feelings of pain, frustration, anger or sadness, we can fall into the trap of invalidating what is true for us in that moment.
In the article Why I Quit My Gratitude Practice to Improve My Mental Health, author and occupational therapist Sarah Bence explains the dangers that can come from comparison. Her daily gratitude practice actually caused her to invalidate the pain that she was constantly feeling and it was those thoughts that kept her from seeking out the medical attention that she needed to find relief. She says, “Obviously, something had gone very wrong in my gratitude practice. By constantly invalidating my experience, I wasn’t giving myself the space to acknowledge what was happening and process my feelings.”
She goes on to explain that she realized that showing gratitude should not mean that you don’t acknowledge and work through the hardships in your life. Feelings of gratitude and feelings of frustration can exist within you at the same time and are not meant to cancel each other out.
When you’re creating your own gratitude practice, it is important to stay as present in your own body, life and world as much as possible. Once you feel the strength that comes from acknowledging your gifts without shame or comparison, you will then feel empowered to think and look bigger and possibly be of service within your community or beyond.
Gratitude vs. Guilt
Showing gratitude should not lead to guilt. Neither can you guilt yourself into gratitude. But, this is an easy place to settle, if you’re not careful. This video from Hank Green nicely explains how guilt is a natural part of acknowledging the things that you have been given.
If you’re interested in taking Hank’s advice and doing something with the advantages that you have been given, we recommend looking into our Allyship Workshop Series, which is all about recognizing your place in a larger world and supporting marginalized communities and dives into concepts surrounding activism and allyship.
When it comes to creating your gratitude practice, this is a time to give thanks without any judgement on yourself and what you deserve or don’t deserve. We have all been given things that we did not need to earn. Recognizing this and putting aside other feelings is a part of your practice that might take time and building of a new habit.
Downplaying Your Own Achievements
While gratitude practices concentrate on things that were given that you likely didn’t earn or might not deserve, there are also many accomplishments that you did work towards. When you’re thinking of things you are grateful for, it is important to remember that while you might not be owed specific advantages or might be given things without working for them, that doesn’t mean that you are not worthy of those things.
An article for Berkeley’s Greater Good site explains, “If you are someone who focuses on thanking everyone else, downplaying your own hard work and talent to a fault, you may be hiding low self-esteem behind your gratitude. Don’t let gratitude get in the way of appropriately taking credit for your own part in success.”
Like with guilt and gratitude, it is possible to feel both humbled for those things that came into your life and proud for those things that you earned and worked towards. You can actually draw strength and purpose from both sides of this coin, as they together have provided you with the life and opportunities that you currently have in front of you.
Sometimes it isn’t our own voices, but the voices of others that change the focus of our thanks and gratitude. If you have grown up in a home where your struggles were met with statements like “we had it much worse when we were your age”, you might still have that voice in your head and believe it is what it means to be grateful. This can again lead you to feeling unworthy or guilty instead of feeling true gratitude.
We can also have people try to force gratitude on us in situations where we did actually do the work to achieve something. For instance, someone might tell you your promotion was because of a friendship with your manager instead of because you have consistently sent in quality work and gone above and beyond. This can lead you to want to defend your position (understandably) and this can spill over into your gratitude practice.
When you’re creating your practice, this is another reason to try to focus on that moment and singular exercise as much as possible. Outside voices and perspectives can warp the work that you’re trying to do. Taking this time to live only inside your own head can also help you combat those conversations or comments when they do happen.
Part Five: Practicing Mindfulness
We have mentioned throughout our previous parts that showing mindfulness can help in your gratitude practice. But what is mindfulness exactly? There are two parts to being mindful: being present in the moment without focusing on thoughts outside of that space and acknowledging your thoughts in any particular moment without judgement.
If you are someone who has studied meditation or yoga, then you likely know something about the practice of mindfulness. Here is a video from Happify that tells a short allegory that explains the power of being mindful:
The most common way of practicing mindfulness is through meditation. Mindful meditation asks that you take some time – it can be done in just a couple of minutes or for an hour – to focus your thoughts only on the present moment.
Here is a short video from an Australian Broadcast Company Science documentary on meditation by Dr. Graham Phillips, who embarked on a two-month experiment of meditation to see what impacts it would have on his life:
Most meditation practitioners recommend starting your practice with a simple breathing exercise. Here is a sample of what that looks like and we encourage you to try it for yourself.
- Set a timer for two minutes.
- Close your eyes
- Inhale to a count of 5.
- When you feel an outside thought come into your mind, one that tries to take the place of your concentration on your breath, take a moment to recognize it. Try to place where the thought came from and why it came into your mind at this moment.
- Bring that feeling into a sphere close to your heart and consolidate it.
- Hold the breath for a count of 5.
- Exhale for a count of 5 while releasing the sphere containing that thought into the universe to be purified.
- Continue this practice until your timer goes off.
Mindfulness is establishing a moment-to-moment awareness of not only your thoughts and current situation, but also your emotions, body and your surroundings. Mindfulness asks that you approach this moment with openness and without judgement and take the time to explore and discover.
Practicing mindfulness and using techniques like the above meditation have been linked to increased sustained happiness and feelings of gratitude while it releases negative feelings like fear, anxiety and jealousy. Taking some dedicated time to practice mindfulness daily will help strengthen your skill for managing your own thoughts and will become something you inevitably do more and more throughout your day.
Keep in mind that mindfulness is not meant to include self-criticism. While you may wish to change elements of your present moment, this is a time to acknowledge all that you’re feeling and experiencing and take from it what you wish, leaving the rest behind in the past.
Part Six: Practicing Gratitude
The act of practicing gratitude seems easy enough. In its purest form, it simply asks you to create a list of things in your life that you are currently grateful for at any given moment. There are a few different ways that people choose to practice gratitude. The most common ways are through gratitude meditation or by keeping a gratitude journal. We are going to look at each of these options, with their benefits and who they might be best for.
- Invites you to find a calm and quiet space to reflect and find peace
- Allows you to sink into your body and connect with yourself on a spiritual and emotional level while tapping into your gratefulness
- Provides space and practice for mindfulness while concentrating on your breath and body in the moment
- Requires a dedicated quiet place
Who Is It Best For?
- People who already have experience with mindfulness through meditation or yoga practices
- Those who wish to build more command over mindful thoughts
When you’re building a gratitude meditation, it can be beneficial to start by following a guided meditation. There are several available for free online, offered by doctors and meditation specialists. Each of these will take you through a section that is meant to get you focused on the present, usually through concentrating on your breath and body. Then, it will move you through different thoughts of gratitude.
Here are a couple that you might want to try:
This video by The Mindful Movement includes a 5-minute guided meditation that includes soothing music, helping you to create a calm and open space to practice.
This 10-minute Gratitude Meditation by Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action includes not only an audio of a guided meditation with Dr. Kathi Kemper, but also has a transcription of the entire meditation and an explanation on why this process works with supporting texts.
- It is both a physical and mental task, making it easier to stay present during this exercise
- The act of journaling has been proven to help regulate emotions
- It creates a list that you can go back to when you are feeling less optimistic
- It can invite more judgement of what you put down on paper
Who Is It Best For?
- People who already journal or are prone to list making and writing things down
- Those whose minds tend to wander during meditation or thinking exercises
There is not one specific way that you need to structure your gratitude journal. While some people like to write freely without any rules or constraints, others might prefer to complete a list each week of three, ten or even a page worth of things to be grateful for. Here are some of the most common methods of journaling:
- Traditional Journal/Diary – Details positive events and moments you experience throughout the day. This practice can not only help you appreciate these moments but will also give you a record of them to refer back to years later. This is best done at the end of the day.
- List Journal – Simply lists things that you are grateful for in any given moment. Many people start their day with this practice, though it can be done at any time.
- Reflection Journal – Includes a series of questions to help you explore and draw gratitude from a moment. You might ask yourself what in your day brought you the most joy, what you learned that day or who you are feeling most grateful for. There are reflection journals available with questions already in them or you can create your own. This practice is best when done later in the day.
As an exercise, take a week to try each of these methods to see if one works best for you. You might find that one is difficult on the first day as you get into the right mindset, but might become easier and more therapeutic over time. With other methods you might find that they don’t hit the right cord and you stall out mid-week. It is important to find what works best for your mind and schedule, as each of us are a little different.
Jay Shetty is a great advocate for gratitude journaling. Here are some tips for him on how to get the most out of the practice:
Other Ways to Practice Gratitude
While it can be great to add a daily or weekly gratitude practice into your routine, these are not the only ways to show gratitude and experience its benefits. Here are some other ways that you can add gratitude into your daily life:
Thank You Letter
One of the best ways to increase your happiness and contentment with life is by spreading joy, kindness and good will to others. A great way of doing this while practicing gratitude is by simply saying thank you for an action, intention or relationship that you have appreciated in your life.
Take a moment to take out a piece of paper and pen. Choose a person in your life that you are thankful for. How have they positively impacted your life? Try to be as honest and unfiltered as possible in expressing your gratitude.
When you are finished, it is up to you to decide if you would like to give that person your letter. Either way, you will likely find that writing it has not only increased your appreciation for them, but also boosted your overall happiness. A study detailed in American Psychologist in 2005 found that those that mailed their thank you letters increased their level of happiness for up to two months after delivery.
Thank you letters have become less of a regular practice since our lives have moved to email and this gives the simple act of writing a letter, adding a stamp and sending it off in the mail extra special. Everyone loves getting something unexpected and it is even greater when it is something personal and truly from the heart.
If you’re not someone who can commit to a regular gratitude journaling routine, a gratitude jar can be a great way of writing down your moments of gratitude when the inspiration strikes you.
Add each down on a strip of paper and add it to a jar. You will likely find that not only does the act of writing it down increase your immediate happiness but you will also gain hopefulness and optimism as you start to see the jar fill with all of the things that you have to be grateful for.
Feeling sad? Take a few minutes to look through your entries. You are likely to discover many of them still bring a smile to your face and might help to turn a bad mood around quickly.
Gratitude Box for Each Member of Your Household
Healthy and strong relationships are built through understanding and appreciation. Similar to a gratitude jar, gratitude boxes simply ask that you write down your moments of gratitude when they strike you. But, with this practice, you focus on things that make you grateful for those you live with and add those moments to each member of your household’s boxes.
This practice allows them to back a selection of gratitude messages they can come back to when in need of a pick-me-up. This is a great practice to do as a whole household and you can choose if you are each going to sign your messages or keep them anonymous.
This is another choice for those that like the idea of taking up gratitude meditation but find they have a difficult time focusing on just their present thoughts and breath.
A gratitude walk is best done in a space where you can marvel at the sights and sounds around you and leave behind stresses of your day or thoughts beyond what you are experiencing in that moment. Gratitude walks are commonly about connecting to nature and your surroundings and showing gratitude for present moments on your walk. This can help you feel more grounded and calm as you move back into your daily life.
Finding the gratitude practice that is right for you can be an exciting and uplifting journey. It takes openness and a willingness to explore to fully feel its effects. If you find that one practice is not working for you, think about why that might be and then move onto the next. In the end, you might find something that enriches your life and spirit on a daily basis.
Mini Quiz: Test What You Have Learned So Far
Part Seven: Showing Gratitude
Hopefully by now you have seen the power of gratitude as a personal practice in not only improving your own happiness, but also keeping you more present in the things and world that is happening in front of you and as a tool for helping you set goals for the future.
There is another layer of practicing gratitude that can be unlocked and push these benefits even further. It can help to enhance your relationships with others and can put good energy back into the world that might come back to you in a wonderful and unexpected way down the road. That is genuinely showing gratitude to those around you.
This video by Soul Pancake shows an experiment where a small group of people were asked to first write letters to someone who had positively influenced them in their life. Once they were done this, they were then, if possible, given the opportunity to call that person to read their letters aloud:
The increase in happiness and the strengthening of bonds between people is undeniable in this video. But, one additional thing that you might have noticed is the reaction the participants had when they were presented with that opportunity to call these important people in their lives. Their immediate reactions were ones of awkwardness, uncertainty and even fear rather than excitement. Why was that when the letter only contained positive things?
Two psychologists out of the University of Chicago looked at this very question and found there is one main reason why you might be reluctant to share your gratitude with loved ones or people who have positively impacted your life.
They found that we tend to believe that people will react to any situation in the same way that we assume we ourselves will react. This is called egocentric bias. So, if you’re feeling awkward about having a heart-to-heart, you will assume that the other person will feel that same awkwardness. Have you ever chosen not to give someone a compliment because you didn’t want them to feel awkward? This is coming from that thought process.
Our egocentric bias does not stop there. It also causes us to believe that if we know something, those around us likely know it as well. So, we believe there is nothing significant to gain from telling someone how we feel about them – as we believe that they already know.
Another reason we might struggle to tell someone how we feel is that we are actually self-conscious about finding the right physical words. We see ourselves stumbling over our thoughts and failing to get our truth point across and don’t want to put anyone through witnessing that.
If you’re feeling this way, there are a couple of things that can help you out. First, you do have the option of writing out your thoughts first, as they did in the above video. This can help ensure that you say exactly what you’re feeling. The second is to recognize that we forget that most people react to our intentions and emotions opposed to the words we actually say. The piece that is going to stay with them is that you showed your gratitude in the first place. This gift of opening yourself up is the key to unlocking that happiness for both of you.
Part Eight: Sincerity in Gratitude
In many of the videos, articles and research, there are two common threads that seem to determine how effective a gratitude practice or act of gratitude will be: sincerity and specificity. Finding a moment to give thanks to what you have been given in life is overly labor intensive, but it does require being attentive and digging a little into your own mind and heart.
When you’re showing gratitude to others, it is especially important to reserve giving thanks to times when you truly mean it, as if someone interprets your words as insincere, the encounter can actually illicit a negative effect.
This video by BrainCraft explains how a simple “thank you” can backfire.
So, how do you make sure when you’re practicing or sharing your gratitude that you’re doing it sincerely and openly?
- Don’t force yourself into a practice or saying “thanks”. While it can be great to establish a routine, if you’re not in the right headspace to find genuine thoughts of gratitude, give yourself permission to skip a day or wait until you are in a more optimistic place.
- Don’t add too much weight to your practice. While taking a few minutes to think or act with gratitude can give you a happiness boost, it is not a cure all for a bad mood nor can it fix problems you might be facing.
- Don’t force yourself to find gratitude in everything right away. Sometimes lessons come to us years after an event or meeting a person.
- Don’t forget to still wish for things and look for opportunities to grow and experience new things. Being grateful for what you have doesn’t mean that you can’t have ambition and imagination for your life. There is always room for looking forward to what is to come in the future as well as recognizing the gifts of the present.
- Get to the root of your gratitude. Don’t stop at just stating what you are grateful for but instead dig in and figure out why it makes you grateful and how it has impacted your life.
As this workshop comes to a close, we want to thank you so much for taking this journey with us. Connecting as a community is one of the things that gives me great joy as the co-owner of Stand Up Speak Up and I hope that you have found this to be time well spent.
Here are some parting words from Sowing Seeds of Gratitude to Cultivate Wellbeing by Deepak Chopra
“Though researchers consider gratitude to be a trait, this does not imply that it exists solely as a genetic setpoint that cannot be changed. Instead, engaging in intentional gratitude practices are associated with a variety of benefits and may, in fact, boost the frequency, depth, and range of circumstances for which we are grateful. Practices that actively cultivate a more conscious experience of gratitude take us beyond reciprocal gratitude, and greatly enrich our lives and our sense of connection to the life around us.”
We hope that you are able to find some happiness here that you can take with you through the rest of your life. If you enjoyed this workshop, check out the others in our Circle of Strength Series.
Mini Quiz: Test What You Have Learned So Far
Additional Meditations to Try
If you’re at a point in your practice where you don’t need to follow a guide and instead just want some ambient sounds and music to accompany your meditation, Autumn Cozy has multiple playlists full of great options. Here is an example from their Coffee Shop Ambiance series: